Baghdad may be echoing with calls to arms for local militias and residents running stampedes into grocery stores to stock up on supplies, but there’s unlikely to be a mass advance by the fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant into the capital any time soon.
Images of mass executions have set off alarms in the divided city, where Shia militias have quickly formed to stave off any repeat of the Iraqi security forces’ capitulation in the northern city of Mosul last week, bolstering numbers on the ground and reinforcing guard positions at the city’s edges and around Shia shrines that ISIL fighters have vowed to destroy.
The concrete blast walls that reached some 20 feet in height and once created enclaves along sectarian lines are again keeping Shia and Sunni populations apart. Sunnis living in the capital fear reprisal by Shia militias bent on retaliating against the Sunni fighters responsible for assaulting the northern cities and reportedly massacring some 1,700 men.
Along with Mosul and Tikrit, news came this week that Tal Afar, another mixed town near the border with Syria has fallen to ISIL fighters. And now places in the eastern province of Diyala, near the restive towns of Baquoba and Khalis have been the scene of intense fighting between ISIL and Iraqi government forces.
Washington said it was sending troops to protect American staff at its embassy in Baghdad, and Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. would consider “a very thorough vetting of every option that is available,” including cooperating with Iran.
The president of the Kurdish Regional Government, Nechervan Barzani, traveled to Iran on Monday to discuss the attacks in Iraq. According to news reports, he would meet with Iranian leaders there to “speak about ways to help the Baghdad government to overcome the crisis in the country.”
There is even the possibility of drone strikes, Kerry said, although it is unclear how the targets would be decided.
“We don’t have the boots on the ground providing intelligence, and we don’t have confidence in information that the Iraqi government provides, because they’ve [been] so heavy-handed in the use of force against Sunni villages,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in one report.
Yet all the areas that have come under attack, security analysts claim, are within the ISIL’s area of strength, parts of the country that are strongly Sunni and where the populations have been marginalized by the Shia-dominated central government.
As the fighters sweep through the north, they’re likely to encounter tribal groups and local Sunnis disenfranchised by the government who, like Sunni leaders in the western province of Anbar, chose to side with the ISIL for reasons ranging from political convenience to possible duress, and the insurgents have faced little opposition from the local population when taking over those towns. But those alliances have shown themselves to be fragile and temporary.
The ISIL has not yet ventured into towns that are dominated by Shia residents, which are primarily in the south, and most certainly are now, protected by neighborhood militias. ISIL fighters have barely been tested against the full force of Shia military might. Whatever forays the group and its loyalists will make toward the capital will come from areas they already dominate, and that will likely be in the west.
The road to Baghdad had been cleared for them by the Iraqi government — something the government forces need to address urgently. Earlier this year the Justice Ministry abandoned the prison in Abu Ghraib, a town less than 10 miles from the capital, because it was deemed a hot area and security forces could not guarantee they could defend it.
There was a breakout last year, orchestrated by those now leading the charge against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government, with over 500 inmates set loose and over a dozen people — guards and inmates — killed in the shootout that ensued.
From Abu Ghraib, access to the western Baghdad suburb of Amriya will be quick and straightforward. During the years of civil war in Iraq, Amriya was home to Sunni fighters who eventually worked out a truce with U.S. troops and formed the Sons of Iraq neighborhood watch. They were shut out of the police ranks by the Iraqi government, despite repeated pleas by the U.S. military.
Before they began cooperating with the U.S., Amriya’s fighters launched roadside bomb attacks on the main highway that ran through its southern flank — the road to Baghdad International Airport. Securing the major highway was one of the main reasons the U.S. military focused on subduing Amriya.
Now analysts expect ISIL fighters to begin their assault on the capital by sabotaging the airport road again and attacking the city as they did Mosul, beginning with stunning car bomb attacks that cause dozens of fatalities, suicide bombings and roadside explosives.
It remains to be seen how they will use the U.S.-provided equipment they won off the Iraqi security forces, whether they will direct them at the capital and the Shia shrines or whether they will continue to move those heavy tanks and armored Humvees over the border to fight Syrian government forces.
The ISIL’s looting of the bank in Mosul and their subsequent capture of almost $500 million will bring it even more success and popularity among extremists, which could result in more volunteers.
One thing is clear: With the streets of the capital teeming with Shia militia of every band, whatever action ISIL fighters take, there will be a very real risk of retaliation by those militias against Sunni civilians living in Baghdad, caught once again in the heart of another sectarian war.